Dr Jonathan Willis BA (Hons), MA, PhD, FRHistS, FHEA

Dr Jonathan Willis

Department of History
Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History

Contact details

Arts Building
University of Birmingham
B15 2TT

I am a historian of the English reformation, with interests in the history and theology of late-medieval and early modern Europe more broadly (c.1450-1700).  My research focuses on the religious and cultural history of England over the course of the long sixteenth century (c.1480-1640). 



  • PGCert Academic Practice, University of Birmingham
  • PhD in History, University of Warwick
  • MA in Religious and Social History 1500-1700 (Distinction), University of Warwick
  • BA (Hons) (First Class) in History, University of Warwick 


I grew up near Norwich in Norfolk, and studied history as an undergraduate and postgraduate at the University of Warwick.  Following the award of my AHRC-funded PhD in 2009 I spent two years teaching and researching in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University.  I joined the History Department at Birmingham in 2011 as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, becoming a Lecturer in Early Modern History in 2013, and Senior Lecturer in 2016.


I am currently convenor of the first year core survey module 'The Making of the Modern World 1500-1800' and I deliver the lectures on the Reformation block.  I teach 'Practising History' modules on Henry VIII and the Disenchantment of the World, and at second year I have a Group Research module on 'Imagined Communities: Tudor History on Film & TV'.  I have a second year option 'Reformation and Rebellion in Tudor England, 1485-1559', and a third year special subject 'Protestants, Papists and Puritans: Religion and Religious Change under Elizabeth I and James I'.  I also convene (alongside Drs Tara Hamling and Margaret Small) the module 'Tudor Terrors: Fear, Faith and Discovery in England and Beyond, c.1500-1650', and have co-taught with Tara Hamling her special subject 'A History of the Tudors in 100 Objects'. 

At postgraduate level I have previously convened the MA and MRes in Early Modern History, and I regularly teach on the core modules 'Introduction to Early Modern History' and 'Writing Early Modern History: Sources and Approaches', as well as 'Historical Methods'.

I supervise research methods and dissertation projects on early modern history at both undergraduate and postgraduate level.

Postgraduate supervision

I am interested in supervising research projects on most aspects of the social, cultural and religious history of early modern England, especially in areas relating to the reformation, theology, popular religion and belief, religious practices, puritanism, parish religion, music, the material culture of the parish church, and histories of emotion and mental illness.

I have been/am currently involved in supervising MA dissertations, MRes theses and PhD theses on the following topics:

MA Dissertations:

  • 'The doctrine-making of 1537-8: the "Bishops' Book"'
  • 'The material significance of stringed instruments in the domestic environment in early modern England'
  • 'The Early Elizabethan Voyages of Exploration'
  • 'Female virtue and the ideal woman as presented in seventeenth-century English funeral sermons'
  • 'Divine wrath and punishment: a warning to mankind'
  • 'Archbishop Matthew Parker and the 1567 whole Psalter translated into English metre'
  • 'Experiencing fire in early modern England, c.1580-1680'
  • 'Defacing Gloriana: attacking effigies of the Queen in Elizabethan England'
  • 'Angels in early modern printed sermons'
  • 'Cultures of Catholic conspiracy in Elizabethan England'
  • 'The experience of mental disability in early modern England'

MRes and PhD Theses:

  • Susan Orlik, 'The changing interior of the English parish church, 1560-1640' (2012-2018)
  • Jan Tasker, 'Early English Drama and the Supernatural, 1530-1642' (AHRC funded - 2014-2021)
  • Tayler Meredith, 'Environmental Change, Natural Disaster and English Communities, c.1550-1650' (ESRC funded - 2014-2018)
  • Sally Wadsworth, 'Liturgical and musical change in the cathedral and parish churches of Salisbury, c.1480-1650' (2015-2021)
  • James Taffe, 'The Careers of Ladies in Waiting at the Henrician Court' (MRes - 2014-2016)
  • Ellie Hedger, 'Soundscapes of Incarceration and Execution in Early Modern England' (AHRC funded - 2017-2021)
  • Elizabeth Crawley, 'Popular religious violence in Reformation England' (AHRC funded - 2017-2021)
  • Howard Barlow, 'Catholicism in post-Reformation Cheshire' (BRIHC funded - 2017-2021)
  • Chris Barnes, 'The post-reformation soundscape of worship in the dioceses of Gloucester and Bristol' (2017-2021)
  • Zoe Screti, 'Alchemy and the Reformation in England' (CAL funded - 2018-2022)
  • Yasmin Vetter, 'The influence of transnational scholarly networks on the Elizabethan Church' (2018-2022)

Find out more - our PhD History  page has information about doctoral research at the University of Birmingham.


My research explores the nature of religious, social and cultural change during the period of the English Reformation, both in the lofty realm of doctrines and ideas, and also in terms of the effects of religious change on the lives, values and beliefs of the great majority of the people; who lived and died without ever reading, much less writing, a work of sophisticated theology.  On the most fundamental level, I am concerned with questions of belief and identity, the relationship between the two, and in the cultural history of theology.

My doctoral research looked at the relationship between church music and Protestant religious identity formation in England during the reign of Elizabeth I.  This involved considering the philosophical and religious origins of reformation-era ideas about music, as well as a detailed exploration of the practice of music-making in key religious sites, the parish and cathedral church.  I also explored the ways in which music was used as a tool of religious instruction, propaganda and devotion, as well as its ability to foment both harmony and discord in a range of different communities.  I have published a monograph and a number of essays and articles stemming from this research, and this is an area in which I retain an active interest.

My last major research project, for which I was awarded an Early Career Fellowship from 2010-2013 by the Leverhulme Trust, was on the Ten Commandments and the English Reformation. The Commandments were a vitally important text, little known for most of the Middle Ages due to the pre-eminence of the Seven Deadly (or Cardinal) Sins.  All that changed around the time of the Reformation.  In England especially, the Decalogue rapidly became ubiquitous: a staple of religious education, church decoration, liturgical invocation, theological speculation and moral instruction.  Taken separately, the commandments speak to some issues of enormous significance for early modern belief and society – iconoclasm, violence, criminality, gender relations – but, taken together, the Law of God also assumed a central role in determining the new Protestant interpretation of  key theological concepts such as faith, good works, justification and sanctification.

My current project involves an exploration of the relationship between the English reformation and mental illness in early modern England, by examining a collection of virtually unknown letters in the English State Papers.  I am interested in how the reformation changed the ways in which people experienced and expressed mental turmoil, and in the testimony this provides in turn about the nature and progress of religious reform. 

I am also at the early stages of devising a project which looks at the material culture of the post-reformation English parish church.  Building on work I have done previously on parish Commandment Boards, I am interested in exploring how church interiors evolved as a result of the English reformation; how the material culture of churches contributed to processes of religious identity formation (sometimes in quite unexpected ways); and how twenty-first century vistors and worshippers engage with this problematic and often neglected aspect of the history of the parish church.

Other activities

I regularly speak at conferences and seminars in Britian, Europe, and North America, and I am a member and former Director of Birmingham’s Centre for Reformation and Early Modern Studies (CREMS).

I am a member of various learned societies, including the Royal Historical Society, the Society for Reformation Studies, the Sixteenth Century Society, and the Ecclesiastical History Society.  I was also (between 2011 and 2015) General Secretary of the European Reformation Research Group (ERRG).

I sit on the editorial board of the monograph series St Andrews Studies in Reformation History, formerly published by Ashgate, now by Brill.  I also peer-review articles and am a frequent reviewer of books for journals including English Historical Review, History, Journal of British Studies, Reformation and Renaissance Review and Journal of Early Modern History.

I co-run a collaboratively-authored early modern blog, the many-headed monster.

Recent conference papers

  • September 2019.  'A "frantick Person's Address to the Queen": Mental Health and Mental Illness in Post-Reformation England'.  European Reformation Research Group, Newman University.
  • September 2018.  'Smashing Iconophobia: navigating images in Post-Reformation England' (with Dr Tara Hamling).  Reformation Studies Colloquium, University of Essex.
  • September 2017.  'Remembering the Reformation: Epistolary Constructions of Religious Identity in Late-Elizabethan England.'  Remembering the Reformation, Murray Edwards College, Cambridge.
  • August 2016.  'Lost voices of the Elizabethan age: the religious identities of some "ordinary" people as seen through their extraordinary letters.'  Sixteenth Century Studies Conference, Bruges, Belgium.
  • May 2014.  'Music in the post-reformation parish church: a theme and variations...'  Warwick Symposium on Parish Studies - Parish Soundscapes, University of Warwick.
  • April 2014.  'Picturing the Ten Commandments in the Post-Reformation English Parish Church.'  The Ten Commandments in medieval and early modern culture, University of Ghent.

Recent seminar papers

  • 19 September 2016, 'Towards a Cultural History of Theology: The Ten Commandments and Popular Belief in Post-Reformation England', Interdisciplinary Early Modern Seminar, University of Cambridge.
  • 11 November 2015, 'Decalogue Boards and Popular Belief in Post-Reformation England', Centre for Early Modern Studies seminar, University of Exeter.
  • 3 February 2015, 'Puritanism and the Ten Commandments in Post-Reformation England', Religious History of Britain 1500-1800 seminar, Institute of Historical Research (IHR), London.
  • 16 October 2014, 'Picturing the Ten Commandments in the Post-Reformation English Parish Church.'  Thursday afternoon seminar, Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham.


Recent publications


Willis, J 2017, The reformation of the Decalogue: religious identity and the Ten Commandments in England, c.1485-c.1625. Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History, Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108241526

Willis, J (ed.) 2015, Sin and Salvation in Reformation England. St Andrews Studies in Reformation History, Ashgate, Farnham.

Willis, J 2010, Church Music and Protestantism in Post-Reformation England: Discourses, Sites and Identities. St Andrews Studies in Reformation History, Ashgate, Farnham. <http://openurl.ac.uk/?isbn=9781409400721>

Chapter (peer-reviewed)

Willis, J 2016, Ecclesiastical Sources. in J Willis & L Sangha (eds), Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources. Routledge Guides to Using Historical Sources, Routledge. <https://www.routledge.com/products/9781138823648>

Willis, J 2016, Introduction: Sin and Salvation in Reformation England. in J Willis (ed.), Sin and Salvation in Reformation England. St Andrews Studies in Reformation History, Ashgate, Farnham, pp. 1-22.

Willis, J & Tingle, E 2016, Introduction, Dying, Death, Burial and Commemoration. in J Willis & E Tingle (eds), Dying, Death, Burial and Commemoration in Reformation Europe. St Andrews Studies in Reformation History, Ashgate, pp. 1-24.

Willis, J 2015, Music and religious identity in Elizabethan London: the value (and limitations) of the churchwardens’ accounts. in A Foster & V Hitchman (eds), Views from the Parish: Churchwardens' Accounts c.1500-c.1800. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle, pp. 179-199.

Willis, J 2014, The Decalogue, Patriarchy and Domestic Religious Education in Reformation England. in J Doran, C Methuen & A Walsham (eds), Religion and the household. Studies in Church History, Boydell & Brewer, Woodbridge.

Willis, J, Mears, N (ed.) & Ryrie, A (ed.) 2013, Protestant Worship and the Discourse of Music in Reformation England. in N Mears & A Ryrie (eds), Worship and the Parish Church in Early Modern Britain. St Andrews Studies in Reformation History, Ashgate, Farnham, pp. 131-150. <https://www.routledge.com/products/9781409426042>

Willis, J 2010, Nature, Music, and the Reformation in England. in P Clarke & T Claydon (eds), Gods Bounty? The Churches and the Natural World. vol. 46, Studies in Church History, Boydell & Brewer, pp. 184-193.


Willis, J 2016, 'Moral Arithmetic' or Creative Accounting? (Re-)defining Sin through the Ten Commandments. in J Willis (ed.), Sin and Salvation in Reformation England. St Andrews Studies in Reformation History, Ashgate, Farnham, pp. 69-86.

Sangha, L & Willis, J 2016, Introduction: Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources. in J Willis & L Sangha (eds), Understanding Early Modern Primary Sources. Routledge Guides to Using Historical Sources, Routledge.

Willis, J 2013, Repurposing the Decalogue in Reformation England. in D Markl (ed.), The Influence of the Decalogue: Historical, Theological and Cultural Perspectives. Hebrew Bible Monographs, no. 58, Sheffield Phoenix Press, Sheffield, pp. 190-204.

Willis, J & Richardson, C (ed.) 2010, 'A Pottle of Ayle on Whyt Sonday': Everyday Objects and the Musical Culture of the Post-Reformation Parish Church. in T Hamling & C Richardson (eds), Everyday Objects: Medieval and Early Modern Material Culture and its Meanings. Ashgate, Farnham, pp. 211-220.

Book/Film/Article review

Willis, J 2010, 'Duffy, Eamon, Fires of Faith: Catholic England Under Mary Tudor (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), Xiv + 249 Pp., £19.99/$28.50, Isbn 978 0 300 15216 6', Journal of Early Modern History, vol. 14, no. 3, pp. 273-275. https://doi.org/10.1163/157006510X490093

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